Glasgow Film Theatre is hosting a really exciting event to mark International Women’s Day to highlight the importance of women artists based in Glasgow to protest movements. They will be screening Hell Unltd, a film by Helen Biggar and Norman McLaren, with a specially commissioned live score performed by Kim Moore (Zoey van Goey) and Gareth Griffiths. In addition they’re showing Traces Left (1983) ‘a documentary about the Glasgow art and political scene in the 1930s and 40s’. I only wish I could get up to Glasgow to see it!
Their focus is on Helen Biggar (1909 – 1953), a Glasgow School of Art graduate who in 1936 created the important anti-war film Hell Unltd with Norman McLaren. The film is a real call-to-action to everyone to actively oppose war and is as effective now, in my view, as it was then. I know we see images of the horror of war every day and you could say that we’ve become anaesthetised or immune to it but for me this film reminds us all that we can play a part in opposing war, and it brings home the disparities between Government spending on armaments versus education, health, culture etc.
In childhood Helen Biggar suffered from a number of illnesses but she succeeded in gaining admission to Glasgow School of Art at the age of 16 in 1925. She worked in filmmaking, sculpture and theatre design and was very involved in politics. She was part of Glasgow Kino, an organisation I hadn’t heard of before, who toured films to raise funds for the Spanish Republican cause. From 1938 onwards she designed stage shows for the Glasgow Workers’ Theatre Group. She moved to London in 1945 and from 1950 she was wardrobe mistress and costume designer for Ballet Rambert. She died, young, of a brain haemorrhage in 1953.*
Helen Biggar sounds like a fascinating individual and I wish there were more resources about her online. Where is her archive? Why isn’t she better known? Annoyingly some references I’ve found to Hell Unltd refer to it as a ‘Norman McLaren’ film completely ignoring the fact that it was made as one of many collaborations between McLaren and Biggar. There is a good biography of her on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography but if you don’t have a subscription for that there is a shortened biography on IMDB.
If you end up going to this event at the GFT I‘d love to hear how it went!
I can’t find any information online about the papers of Helen Biggar, maybe they are at Glasgow School of Art, maybe they are in London somewhere, or maybe they are still with family?
Norman McLaren archive at the University of Stirling Archives
The National Film Board of Canada also has some of Norman McLaren’s films available to watch online
*Biographical information taken from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.